For a good Glasgow outcome, get net zero done

By Paul McNamee, Head of Politics, Green Alliance

Published:06 February 2020

Hosting a United Nations climate summit, particularly such an important one as this year’s, is a risky business for any government. It can end in a big green love-in, as we saw at the end of the Paris summit five years ago – beaming smiles, back-slaps, positive headlines – or the reverse.

Paris 2015: two years of careful diplomacy pays off. Image: COP-Paris, CCL
Paris 2015: two years of careful diplomacy pays off. Image: COP-Paris, CCL

And although real world events can either help or hinder the process of trying to agree solutions to climate change, the approach of the host government – in this case, Boris Johnson’s – is absolutely key.

By common consent, there are two things his government has to get right to deliver a summit outcome that meets the demands of science and public opinion: diplomacy and leadership.

‘Diplomacy’ to build the international alliances we’ll need to advance against the regressive forces of Trumpism and the Gulf petrostates; and leadership, because if we’re asking the rest of the world to come with us on the journey to a net zero future, we have to show that the UK genuinely is making the journey.

Currently, we’re not. The target of reaching net zero emissions is enshrined in law, as of last June. But existing policies will not get us there.

Everyone who has thought this through seriously comes up with the same conclusion: the Johnson government needs to enact new policies that get us demonstrably on track to net zero well before the summit opens if the prime minister is to look like a credible climate leader when he rocks up in Glasgow to meet his counterparts from all over the world in November.

There are no policies yet for net zero

Not only are we not on track to net zero, we’re not even on track to meet the less stretching target set previously: an 80% reduction of carbon emissions by 2050.

Paul McNamee
The Cabinet urgently needs to set new carbon-cutting policies across the economy, says Paul McNamee

In particular, there aren’t policies adequate to cut emissions in sectors that really need to get going now.

Think about transport. A car lasts on average for 14 years before it’s scrapped. That’s the average – some are on the roads for much longer.

So if all petrol and diesel cars need to be off the road by 2050 – which they do for net zero – we need to be selling nothing but zero carbon cars much earlier, at the latest by 2030. Putting that policy in place now will drive companies to act, in car manufacture, retail, leasing, charging and other associated businesses.

The same urgency holds for home heating. We heat 85% of our homes with fossil gas; that number needs to fall to zero within the next 30 years. And the average lifespan of a boiler is about 15 years. This needs to be accompanied by massive improvements to the energy efficiency of our homes. We also need to seriously start improving public transport and cycling, and our countryside, where more trees and restored peatland will be needed to absorb carbon.

So, Mr Johnson’s government must put its house in order within a matter of months, getting on track to net zero to play that leadership card at the summit. Its official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), will give their verdict in June; but to help concentrate minds, we at Green Alliance have launched, as part of our flagship Cutting Carbon Now partnership, a UK net zero policy tracker. This is to make sure that everyone understands clearly the extent to which the UK is stepping up to take its commitments seriously, or not.

Green Alliance's Net Zero Policy Tracker
Green Alliance's new Net Zero Policy Tracker follows the UK Government's actions and spending commitments to tackle the climate and nature emergency.

The big actions needed will also be crowd pleasers

The starting point is that there is an enormous gap between the amount that will, as things stand, be emitted over the period 2028-2032 – what’s known in law as the Fifth Carbon Budget period – and what should be emitted if the nation is headed for net zero along the most economically rational path.

Over that five year period, the policy shortfall comes to 313 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtC02e), or roughly 63 MtCO2e per year.

Electric car
Advancing the fossil fuel phase-out date to 2030 gets almost twice the benefit of 2035. Image: Electric Car, Andrew Roberts, Unsplash

Another way of putting it is that the government needs to step up on current policies by about 20%.

Many in the environment movement would argue that 2050 is too late to be reaching net zero anyway. If we plot a course to 2045, the policy shortfall is 574 MtC02e.

We’ve identified five policies, including these on housing and transport, that could be implemented right now to plug the gap.

They will be relatively cheap. And the bonus is that they come with a huge number of other crowd-pleasing benefits, like better health, lower bills for heating homes and running cars, and more productive industry.

A 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles would, on its own, close the gap by almost a third. Mr Johnson has indicated that the government may bring the date forward, but is minded to go for 2035. This produces only about half of the benefit (57 MtCO2e, vs 98 MtCO2e for a 2030 ban). Effective policies to cut domestic energy waste, bringing all of the country’s existing homes up to EPC band C, would get almost another third.

The government could, of course, pick a different set of policies but these are sensible, affordable and implementable.

'Get net zero done'

The shortfall is significant, but the CCC’s work shows that it involves quitting carbon at about the same rate that we have been for the last 30 years. So it’s by no means a huge ask; the government just needs to get on with it.

We’ll update the tracker regularly as policy and funding pledges are made. But only firm ones will count – not vague promises, but proper policies with a delivery mechanism and funding attached if needed. We will also tot up the impact of any policies that will increase emissions, for example, cutting Air Passenger Duty, which ministers are mulling over as they seek to bail out struggling airline FlyBe.

Our policy tracker will be making public any progress or regression to meet the goal of getting on track to net zero. We want to make sure that the prime minister can stand up in Glasgow at the end of the year and confirm that we are walking the walk on climate change and providing a real leadership example to the rest of the world.

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